We just crashed Twitter,” Oscar host Ellen DeGeneres crowed after sending out her now famous celebrity-laden selfie during ABC’s live Academy Awards telecast last month. “We got an email from Twitter, and we crashed and broke Twitter. We have made history. See, Meryl, what we did? You and I? It’s amazing, we really just made history. It’s fantastic.”
There is nothing like live TV — millions of people sharing a moment, sometimes comic, sometimes shocking, sometimes tragic and sometimes simply fun. Such moments touch off conversations that roll through living rooms onto social media and into the office the next day.
With the help of Twitter and other social media, live TV is experiencing a renaissance in broadcasting — or at least a renaissance of appreciation.
The National Football League — all live — is the hottest (and costliest) programming in TV these days and will be regularly broadcast three nights a week this fall. Live awards shows like the Academy Awards are proliferating as networks try to capitalize on their particular blend of glamour and competitive drama. The network’s big-budget talent shows continue to rely on live to build tension for participants and viewers.
And as TV stations add newscasts, they are increasing the live content within those newscasts. Some are even experimenting with live local entertainment.
“There’s a feeling that live television is a way to stave off the wolf at the door — new media,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Pop Culture at Syracuse University.
“In the near future, we’ll see more of this. People have it in their head that live TV is the way old-school television will remain relevant. Until evidence proves that that’s not true, more and more people will try it.”
Live productions like NBC’s Sound of Music Live give programs an added dose of excitement and immediacy.
“That was something different,” says Darcy Bowe, VP-director of video at Starcom USA. “There’s something to be said for watching a show for three hours for just one night. You can watch it and feel like you’re part of the water cooler buzz without having to make a long commitment to a show.”
Live TV has also proven to be a reliable antidote against the DVRs and commercial zapping and it dovetails perfectly with America’s growing fascination with social media to boost ratings.
Heavily reliant on advertising, broadcasters have long been wary of DVRs. More than 47% of TV homes now have a DVR and 23% have more than one, according to Leichtman Research Group.
“For movies and retailers, time-shifting can be a concern,” says Starcom’s Bowe. “That is why live TV is interesting to a lot of TV advertisers. Advertisers are demanding immediacy. Amassing an audience on a particular night is important.”
Combating ad skipping empowered by the DVR is a bigger issue for TV stations than it is for network TV.
Advertisers typically buy local TV using Nielsen’s live-only or live-plus-same-day program ratings. Network TV is bought on C3 commercial ratings, which includes live viewing and three days of DVR playback. That means local TV advertisers pay for viewers who fast-forward through their commercials.
“One of the things about news is that, to some extent, it’s DVR-proof,” says Emily Barr, president-CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations.
Live TV and social media were made for each other. In 2013, 36 million people in the United States sent 990 million Tweets about TV shows they were watching live, according to Nielsen SocialGuide. Moreover, 84% of people who have smartphones or computer tablets use those devices while watching TV.
DeGeneres’s Oscar tweet really did make history. Some three million DeGeneres followers retweeted the selfie, setting a new record and cementing Twitter’s place as a TV enhancer.
But week in and week out, it’s live sports that light up social media. During the Super Bowl in February, Twitter was on fire. The game and its commercials generated some 1.8 billion tweets that were seen by 15.3 million Twitter users. The esurance spot prompted the most Twitter chatter, with 1.2 million Twitter users posting nearly 1.9 million messages about it.
“Sports shows and awards shows tend to be watched live, which is very appealing to advertisers,” says Brad Adgate, SVP of research at Horizon Media. “But social media is a part of this [live TV] trend, too. People want to be part of the conversation. If a show is live, more often than not, people will be online chatting about it.”
The most watched and most pervasive live broadcast programming is sports. Horizon Media estimates that some 95% of televised sports is watched live, meaning time-sensitive advertisers are immediately getting the viewers they’re paying for.
And of all the live sports, the NFL delivers the largest audiences. In December 2011, CBS, Fox and NBC extended their weekly NFL packages through the 2022 season. For the nine years of programming, the three nets agreed to pay $28 billion.
The NFL seasons are capped each February by the Super Bowl, a cultural phenomenon and television’s most-watched event. This year, a record 111.5 million people tuned into Fox for the big game, even though it was a rout with no second-half drama.
So enamored are the broadcast networks of the NFL that they all lined up early this year when the NFL asked if anyone wanted to simulcast eight Thursday night games it airs on its own NFL Network. CBS put together the best bid. It reportedly agreed to pay at least $250 million for the package, according to the New York Times.
“As video consumption becomes increasingly on demand, there is unquestionably value in live sporting events that get people in front of the set as well as commenting in real time on social networks,” says Brian Hughes, SVP of the audience analysis practice at media buying agency Magna Global. “Major sports events, in particular the NFL, remain some of the most-watched telecasts on television and ratings are remarkably consistent.”
Broadcast schedules also have plenty of non-sports live productions.
ABC’s top-10 rated reality show Dancing with the Stars is often live, as are the Bachelor After the Final Rose finale specials. Its other live specials include the Academy Awards, American Music Awards, Billboard Awards, Country Music Awards and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.
Other than sports, CBS offers live specials like the long-running People’s Choice Awards, the Grammy Awards and its Grammy Nominations Concert Live.
Fox goes live with its two popular reality shows, American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. Its live specials include American Country Awards, New Year’s Eve Live and the Teen Choice Awards.
NBC’s top-rated The Voice and summer hit America’s Got Talent are live. Its live specials include the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Christmas in Rockefeller Center and the Golden Globes, which in January hit a 10-year ratings high with 20.9 million viewers. And, of course, the network still has Saturday Night Live.
The renaissance in live entertainment might be best exemplified by NBC’s live telecast last December of the Sound of Music Live starring country singer Carrie Underwood as Maria and True Blood actor Stephen Moyer as Captain von Trapp.
The 18.6 million people who watched it live made it that week’s No. 2 primetime show, trailing only NBC’s Sunday Night Football. It had three million more viewers than the No. 3 show, CBS’s Big Bang Theory. And it was NBC’s most-watched non-sports Thursday since the 2004 Frasier finale.
Social media were alive with the Sound of Music. Some 5.3 million people saw Twitter comments about the show the day it aired, making it No. 1 in the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings.
As a point of comparison, No. 2 was NBC’s The Voice, also live, with just under 3.5 million people seeing tweets about that show. No. 3 was the Grammy Nominations Concert Live with 2.7 million people seeing those tweets.
“Live shows are the best accommodators to the second screen,” says Thompson. “It lends itself to social media.”
Pleased with The Sound of Music, NBC plans to try it again. During the TCA press tour in January, NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt announced that NBC would air Peter Pan Live this December.
The musical has a history at NBC that starts in 1955, Greenblatt said. “The Broadway production, which was doing great business, closed in order for the whole cast to do a live broadcast of it on NBC from a studio in Manhattan,” he said.
“Sixty-five million people tuned in. It was so successful that a year later NBC did another live production with the same cast. And then in 1960, they did it again, this time starring Mia Farrow.”
Jordan Wertlieb, president of Hearst Television and chairman of the NBC Affiliates Board, says live theatrical specials appeal to families.
“NBC’s announced commitment to Peter Pan is another exciting opportunity to reach families with a live television event,” he says. “Specials like the Sound of Music fulfill viewers’ appetites for not only something special, but for television that can be shared across generations.”
In addition to Peter Pan, NBC also is adding two live awards shows — iHeartRadio Music Awards and the American Comedy Awards. NBC’s first iHeartRadio will air on May 1. It’s being co-produced by Ryan Seacrest Productions and Clear Channel Media.
The American Comedy Awards, honoring film, TV shows and standup comics, is being revived after stints on ABC from 1987 to 2001 and on Comedy Central in 2002. Don Mischer, who is best known for having produced the Academy Awards, Olympics opening ceremonies and Super Bowl half-time shows, is among the special’s executive producers.
CBS is also upping its live game with the addition of the annual Hollywood Film Awards to its lineup in the fall. The awards, which have never been televised before, “is a star-filled, fun night full of surprises, and the first stop out of the gate kicking off the film awards season,” said Jack Sussman, EVP of specials, music and live events at CBS, in January.
At the local level, TV stations have been steadily adding live programming, mostly news.
On average, TV stations air five hours of news each weekday, according to the most recent RTDNA/Hofstra University Annual Survey. That is a few minutes down from four consecutive years of increases. But, when including weekends, total news hours are up. News on Saturdays is up an average 12 minutes, year over year. On Sundays it’s up six minutes. “From 2010 to 2014, we increased the number of hours of news across six stations by 41 hours, or 21%,” says Post-Newsweek’s Emily Barr. “We have done that in two ways. We have branched out to new time periods. And we have done a hybrid of news and talk, like in Detroit with Live in the D, which airs at 11 a.m.”
Other large groups are adding news at rates that far exceed the average.
In the past two years, Tribune has increased its news by 40% on 42 stations to 75,000 hours, not counting breaking news stories. And Tribune executives say they plan to add even more.
NBC Owned Television Stations now has midday news on each of its 10 stations, including seven that the group’s president, Valari Staab, has added since 2011. Most NBC Owned stations have added other newscasts throughout the day.
During the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, for instance, WTVJ Miami added a 4:30 a.m. broadcast that was intended to air only during the Games, but it’s staying put. A year ago, WNBC New York expanded its Sunday 11 p.m. news from a half-hour to one hour.
Many local broadcasters are taking live production beyond the news.
“Any time we do a local non-news program, we try to do it live,” says WFAA’s Devlin. “A live event generates more excitement with viewers. It’s riskier, but that creates energy.
“In addition to our news and a 9 a.m. entertainment show [Good Morning Texas], we broadcast the Dallas marathon, we do Big DNYE — our New Year’s Eve program. We have a live Fourth of July fireworks program. We’re always looking for live program opportunities.”
Post-Newsweek is developing at least one afternoon entertainment show for this fall, SA Live on ABC affiliate KSAT San Antonio, Texas, that will replace the syndicated Katie from Disney-ABC that’s ending its run this season.
SA Live is similar to Disney-ABC’s Live with Kelly and Michael. It will be live at 1 p.m., following local news at noon. General Hospital will air at 2 p.m.
“The only thing that differentiates us from everything else out there is what we can do locally,” Barr says. “If you do that, you distinguish yourself and create a buzz. It generates higher interest in your programming throughout the day. We’ve seen that time and time again.”
E.W. Scripps has an ambitious plan for a live show that will be produced for four hours each weekday (see related story). It will air live in four time zones on eight of its stations.
“We want to be live because we want to be urgent,” says Bob Sullivan, Scripps VP of programming. “If there’s fresh video online, we want that on our air. We want to be as nimble sharing our content as people are online. Live shows are more immediate. It’s real time. That’s a focus for us.”
This story originally appeared in TVNewsCheck’s Executive Outlook, a quarterly print publication devoted to the future of broadcasting. Subscribe here.